Summary Information about the African Burying Ground.
African Burying Ground and Memorial Park
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
As in many other old New England towns, Portsmouth, New Hampshire's earliest development was underwritten by the institution of slavery. As a port city in one of the few colonies that did not impose a tariff on slaves, Portsmouth was a major entry-point for slave ships in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. There, after enduring the horrors of the Middle Passage, enslaved Africans would first set foot on American soil. During the eighteenth century, especially, these Black people and African Americans had no small hand in the city's transformation from a hamlet on the sea to a dominant Atlantic seaport. Displaced, and overburdened, Portsmouth's earliest African and African American residents faced some of life's meanest trials. At the end of their days, they were put to rest in a segregated cemetery on Chestnut Street near the outskirts of town. From as early as 1705 to as late as 1803, this cemetery saw a range of burial practices: from traditional African funerary song and dance to somber Christian practices; perhaps some were buried there with little ceremony. Nevertheless, this space was once a cemetery revered by Portsmouth's earliest African and African American residents, free and enslaved.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the practice of slaveholding in New Hampshire was in sharp decline: between 1773 and 1786, the reported number of enslaved people in the state fell from 674 to 46. Without daily reminders of their culpability in American slavery, Portsmouth's city leaders and residents worked to consciously forget it. Portsmouth's future was bright, and this past was difficult to bear. Such conscious forgetting was no small matter for those buried at Chestnut Street. As early as 1803, the city began to encroach upon the sacred burial site; eventually the cemetery was paved over and mostly forgotten. The bodies buried there were divided by city streets and dissected with underground pipelines for new houses. Though a few local history buffs and city officials were always aware of the burial ground (public records account for the burials at Chestnut Street well into the twentieth century), progress took precedence over memory. For two hundred years this seemed to be the final fate of Portsmouth's earliest African and African American people.
In 1995, the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail included the area known as the "Negro Burying Ground" among its twenty-four historic sites reflecting the presence of African people in New Hampshire since 1645. The Trail described the burial site in its first publications, a walking tour guidebook and a teacher resource book, both widely distributed throughout the region. Then, in 2000, the Trail installed one of its many distinctive cast bronze plaques on what is believed to be the first house built over part of the African Burying Ground – a distinguishing landmark for passersby on what appeared to be just another city street lined with cars at parking meters. And still this burying ground remained largely ignored.
That is, until things on Chestnut Street changed. In 2003, contractors on a City improvement project revealed thirteen deteriorating wooden coffins during routine infrastructure upgrades. Further excavations and recovery of skeletal remains confirmed the street to be part of the site of the long forgotten "Negro Burying Ground". The city brought in a team of experts--archaeologists, geneticists and forensic scientists who estimated, based on available census records, that the site could hold as many as two hundred people of African descent.
No longer at the periphery, Chestnut Street, as fate would have it, now runs through the heart of downtown Portsmouth. Those forgotten lives were now crucially important to Portsmouth's present and future. Twenty-first century citizens found themselves grappling with the heavy question: how can we do right by those who faced such enduring abuse in the past? From the beginning, the people of Portsmouth understood the importance of this reparation. They committed to return the Chestnut Street site to sacred ground. A team of neighbors, churches, and state officials headed up by the mayor-appointed African Burying Ground Committee worked to devise a respectable way to honor those buried. The racially diverse group recognized the task at hand not as a question of Black history or White history alone; this, they said, is Portsmouth's history. The group worked together to plan and raise money and ushered in a multi-year process of re-internment.
First, residents of Portsmouth voted to close Chestnut Street to vehicular traffic. During the following years, the African Burying Ground Committee worked with city officials and employed artisans, archeologists and architects to imagine a public space that would celebrate the humanity of those buried there. A memorial park named "We Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten" was the result of long and often difficult discussions. The park, which runs the length of Chestnut Street, includes sculptural pieces, historical information, granite seating walls, a community plaza, decorative tiles, landscaping, and pedestrian scale lighting.
Designed by sculptor and artist Jerome Meadows and local landscape architect Roberta Woodburn, the intent of the African Burying Ground Memorial Park is to connect the people of Portsmouth today with those buried here long ago. A sculpture of two life-sized figures - one male and one female - with each figure reaching around the edge of the slab towards the other, speaks to the various levels of separation, uncertainty, individuality and perseverance experienced by the people brought to this country as captives. At the opposite end of the site is a series of stylized figures who represent the collective community of Portsmouth coming together to acknowledge, protect and pay homage to this Burying Ground and partly encircle the burial vault containing the re-interred remains. The burial vault is marked with a West African Sankofa symbol which means Return and get It - Learn from the past.
The park is a memorial, as well as a permanent resting place for those buried beneath, marked with the same appropriate scale and solemnity as other city cemeteries. It is a public place of respect and perpetual care. Once the design process was almost complete, the local Black community guided preparations for reburial in traditions of African and African American funerals. Chair of the African Burying Ground Committee Vernis Jackson said "these events are about remembering the dead and returning the remains to the earth, as well as acknowledging the site's history and celebrating the community-wide effort that has made this project possible." The hands of twenty African-American women elders were the last to touch and shroud the ancestral bones for the return to their final resting place. The ceremony that followed was a communal act of love and honor for Portsmouth's oldest African and African American citizens. Members of the community, all ages and colors and faiths, held an all-night vigil, never leaving the bodies alone. Some people of Portsmouth sat quietly with the caskets, others recited a poem for these ancestors or said a prayer, sang, danced, and played music for them. By sunlight and into the depths of the night, people celebrated the humanity of those still buried at Chestnut Street. On the morning of May 23, 2015, pallbearers carried the caskets into the memorial park. A reburial ceremony was held that included African customs likely familiar to those being interred.
Although many questions remain about the burial site and the lives of those at rest there, Portsmouth, New Hampshire offers a model of reconciliation through communal preservation and the re-dedication of sacred space. We have to do more than simply recognize the existence of slavery in this country to ease its wounds. Willful ignorance of the past is not a way to move toward a better future. We owe the once enslaved more than that. Portsmouth, New Hampshire teaches us how to honor our ancestors, how to love those who were unloved for far too long. By walking with people from the past and recognizing the injustice they faced, by building community across race and over time--this is how we create a better present and future world. Portsmouth, New Hampshire shows us that the only way to move past cruelty and violence is to love.
View Video: "Reburial Ceremony at African Burying Ground, Portsmouth, NH"